If you have ever read a story to a child, you know what a magical experience it is to see a child sitting spellbound, anticipating the next words, eyes wide and completely engrossed. It’s those moments that shape how the child will think about books and reading for the rest of his/her life.

What if you could influence that drive to learn to love reading and books?

Sixty-one percent of low-income families in the USA have no books at all in their homes for their children, according to the U.S. Department of Education. As a result, these children begin school behind their more affluent peers and are often unable to catch up. How do we ensure that all students begin kindergarten on equal footing?

According to the experts, it all begins with books.

The more exposure to books a child has, the better they will perform.

RSVP recruits and trains volunteers to become preschool classroom readers. In Head Start classrooms in Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties and one preschool in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, RSVP volunteers reach 2,200-plus preschoolers through the Family Literacy program. Book drives, donations, grants and corporate partnerships ensure that books are provided for Head Start classrooms and that several books are gifted to children so they may begin to build their own home libraries and finally have books of their own.

Sherilyn Homans West is the family and community partnerships supervisor with the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit and works with 26 Head Start and nine Pre-K Counts classrooms.

“A typical Head Start classroom has 20 students of multiple races, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds," she reports. "The typical student is 3 to 5 years old and living in a low socio-economic status. Many of our children have not been exposed to reading or books on a regular basis. We teach them how to hold a book properly, learn about characters and themes, recognize patterns and care for books.”

RSVP’s Family Literacy volunteers typically visit their assigned classroom weekly. They often select and bring a book they know will excite the students. Many will bring along items that enhance the reading experience and bring the story to life for the children. The students get very excited when they know a volunteer will be visiting to read and will sit quietly in anticipation to hear the story. When children are read to aloud, they acquire a stronger vocabulary and are able to develop the critical early literacy skills they will need when they enter school.

“Having a volunteer in the classroom provides another opportunity for students to engage in a one-on-one basis, which is invaluable," Homans West said. "The volunteers provide children with another caring adult to guide them and excite them about reading.”

Parent workshops are held to encourage and facilitate reading at home. A simple newsletter accompanies the books children take home and offers fun tips to make reading with children an anticipated and exciting time. Reading at home is not just important to advance literacy; it’s also an important bonding experience for families. Based on RSVP surveys, 83 percent of parents understand the importance of reading at home because of this program.

A feature of RSVP’s Family Literacy program is Lucky the Dalmatian, the reading mascot, a stuffed toy that accompanies the students home along with reading books and a journal where families can write about what Lucky did while he was a visitor and which books he enjoyed. Children love Lucky and will often retell the story to him by pointing to the pictures.

“Eighty percent of parents are reading more often to their children, averaging 4.3 books per week," Michele Moll, RSVP’s executive director, reported. "Interest in reading has increased dramatically, with 75 percent of students and 64 of their siblings expressing more interest in books.”

Mary Jo Wineberg is a new volunteer who just joined the program. She will begin at a Head Start classroom in Yeadon in a few weeks, and she’s thrilled to get started. She misses the days when her grandchildren were young and she would read to them and make up stories. She knows that she will be able to rekindle that joy in the classroom.

“I have a lot to give," she said. "I used to make up stories all the time about turtles and ducks and fairies. When we would go out together, we’d look for the fairies. My friends still call me Tinkerbell! My granddaughters both grew up to be great readers. Now in college, they make the Dean’s List every year.”

Classroom readers are needed in Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties and Philadelphia’s Children’s Village to excite preschoolers about reading and help prepare them to enter kindergarten. To learn more, visit rsvpmc.org or call 610-834-1040 ext. 123.

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